As the strike embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) to press for the payment of arrears of its members’ allowances enters its eighth week, it appears that there is no hope that the action would be called off soon. While the university teachers have stuck to their guns, refusing to return to the classroom until their grievances are addressed, the federal government, on its part, has continued to skirt around the issue.
Only last week, Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, dropped what appeared to be the ultimate bombshell when she said the government could not pay the money because it lacks the resources to do so. According to her, the authorities would require a whopping N92 billion to meet ASUU’s demand, an amount the cash-strapped government cannot afford.
Apparently convinced that the federal government is only playing games over the matter, ASUU has refused to shift ground. According to Dr. Olusegun Ajiboye, Chairman of the University of Ibadan chapter of the union, the amount required to settle the teachers is only N87 billion, and not N92 billion mentioned by the minister. The N87 billion, he explained, covers three and a half years earned allowances of thousands of lecturers, jointly calculated by the government and ASUU in the 2009 agreement. Even at that, he further noted, “the N87 billion was a compromise made by ASUU by scaling down from the actual figure of N127 billion.”
As this impasse persists, it has become glaring that the solution to the problem goes beyond politicking. It will not be solved by propping up pro-government groups and friendly governors to ‘appeal’ to ASUU to call off the strike. That, at best, is a veiled blackmail of the lecturers. It does not in any way address the problem because, if it at all succeeds in getting the teachers to return to the classroom, it would only postpone the evil day. The root of the problem, which is poor funding of universities and education generally, would still remain.Of course, it is not enough to just ask the federal government to meet ASUU’s demand. It is necessary to enjoin ASUU to seek other ways of drawing attention to problems in the universities without the endless resorts to strikes at the drop of a hat.
The union must bear in mind that, even in the seeming disorderliness in the education sector, there have always been rules of engagement pertaining to strikes. Much as Section 43 of the Trade Unions Act of 1973 (Laws of Nigeria 1990) allows workers to go on strike, the Trade Disputes Act of 1976 (CAP. 432, Laws of Nigeria 1990) clearly spells out the conditions that have to be met before such strike is embarked upon. It is wrong to just call for a strike simply because the laws of the land allow you to do so. Workers must always take cognizance of extant laws. In particular, the Trade Disputes Act of 1976 because it is common knowledge in law that leges posteriors, priores contraias abrogant (later laws abrogate prior laws that are contrary to them). This is even more so when we consider the fact that, legally, a strike approximates to a notice of termination of appointment.Even though government has always been hesitant in applying this rather harsh interpretation of the laws, ASUU, and other unions, must form the habit of seeing strike as a last option. The frequency of strikes in our tertiary institutions leaves much to be desired. The fact that parents and guardians can no longer expect that a four-year degree programme would be completed even in six years is partly responsible for the resort of many Nigerian parents to sending their children to universities in Ghana, South Africa and even Republic of Benin, where they can be sure that a four-year degree programme would not drag on ad infinitum.
However, it is not enough to demonize the lecturers over these incessant strikes. On the reverse side of the coin is the failure/refusal of the government to honour agreements it entered into with ASUU. True, government may not now have the N92 billion it says would be required to meet the demand of ASUU, but it is instructive to note that the amount involved was not always a bulk N92 billion. The latest figure came about as a result of accumulated arrears, the government having failed to keep to the agreement signed since 2009.
Our position, therefore, is that government should demonstrate sufficient commitment to the funding of our universities. This problem will not be solved by both parties sticking to their guns. Both ASUU and the federal government have to, once again, shift grounds and reach a compromise to enable the students return to school in their best interest and that of the country.